From the vantage point of a once hard core, and now somewhat dispassionate fan, who is following the IPL after a couple of years, it has been interesting to see the changes in the team. It has also been interesting to notice a big change in the composition of the Super Kings line up that I think will hurt them in the playoffs.
I have often believed that the strength of the batting or bowling of an IPL team is accurately reflect more by its domestic components, rather than its internationals. While a great recruit like a Malinga or a Warner is definitely of great value, domestic strength over the years has emerged as the key to consistency.
In the past, Chennai featured (and trusted) the likes of Murali Vijay, S Badrinath, Parthiv Patel, Wridhhiman Saha, and even the likes of S Aniruddha and S Vidyut. This year, however, there has been a complete reliance on the foreign batsmen in McCullum, Dwayne Smith, Faf Du Plessis, the all-rounder in Dwayne Bravo, and now Mike Hussey. This has been further hastened by Raina and Dhoni not being at their best. This goes against general selection policy over the years, where every CSK side would have one international strike bowler, be it Bollinger, Hilfenhaus, Chris Morris, or in the alternative be stacked with all-rounders like Morkel, Kemp, Kulasekara, Perera, etc. This change has been a symptom of the unusual lack of strength in CSK’s batting reserves that will hamper them in the playoffs while McCullum is away on national duty. Outside of Raina, Dhoni and to a certain extent, Jadeja and Negi, CSK’s domestic batting group comprises only of Mithun Manhas and Baba Aparajith.
Interestingly, not only does this lack of domestic batting hamper their batting, but it has tied the hands of CSK in terms of bowling selection, where emphasis has been on domestic bowlers. Ashish Nehra and Dwayne Bravo have solved that problem to an extent by having a throwback year, but Ishwar Pandey has been inconsistent at best and Mohit Sharma has been downright poor. The biggest loss for CSK has been the player they have been unable to put on the field, and that is Kyle Abbott. Abbott was arguably the best or 2nd best seamer for South Africa in the World Cup and outperforming Dale Steyn is no mean feat. A bowling attack featuring him, Nehra, Bravo, Ashwin and Jadeja, with Negi as back up would automatically be one of the best in the IPL, but CSK cannot afford to do that, since their batting would be weakened immensely.
The reason I have spent so much time highlighting this glaring issue, is that this is opposite to what the Super Kings have been over the years. CSK would always be among the best, if not the best batting line ups in the league, while their bowling would be just average, with one or two key components. This year however, [and maybe the year before?], the identity has changed, where the batting needs to be propped up with international talent. To me that has been the biggest change for the team in yellow. It is also evident from the pitches at the MA Chidambaram stadium this year that Chennai are aware of this as well. For the Ranji trophy this season, a series of dry, beaten downtracks were laid out to aid the TN spinners. Usually, for the IPL, 140-150 wickets are the norm as CSK would really on their slow bowlers and big hitters. However, this year there have been only 2 scores below 150, and the average first innings total has been 164 [all CSK]. This tells me that pitches have been laid out to favor the batting and rely on bowlers bowling consistent lines and lengths to win games.
With McCullum gone, I expect the Super Kings to struggle going into the playoffs. While Hussey has been a fantastic player over his career and also for the Super Kings, and opening combination of him and Dwayne Smith does not scream IPL champions the way Gayle-Kohli, Watson-Rahane do. Heck, on current form, even Simmons-Parthiv sounds a better combination. The problem for Chennai is that their domestic batting strength doesn’t allow for the selection of Abbott, and hence, they are stuck.
It will be interesting to see if CSK shuffle up their batting order, promoting Faf Du Plessis, and what tactics they use with Raina having his worst IPL season. Given their imbalance, I would suggest that RCB, or maybe even RR are favorites from this point on.